Monthly Archives: July 2015

On Dentists, Doxxing and the Death of a Lion

The internet is a funny, scary place.

Photo Credit: gecco! via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: gecco! via Compfight cc

Over the past 48 hours, an Australian woman has been subjected to a torrent of the vilest imaginable abuse from fans of an American performer, whose work could be said to be misogynistic. The Australian woman made a public comment asking for her government to reconsider granting the performer a visa to enter Australia due to the content of his music (which features lyrics glorifying rape, sexual assault and violence against women) and when the performer announced, erroneously, on Twitter that this had resulted in him being denied access to the country, the woman endured thousands of disgusting Tweets. These Tweets were sent by fans (overwhelmingly male) of the performer – so, way to go with proving that listening to such music doesn’t encourage a person to feel, or think, or act in misogynistic ways. Or maybe the music speaks to a deep level of preexisting anti-woman sentiment in the fans’ minds. Maybe it’s both.

Here is a link to her Twitter feed, should you care to check it out. I’m not sure I’d recommend it, exactly, but it’s up to you. She shared several of the vilest threats she received, and also some of the supportive messages. It’s an education.

Also over the past 48 hours or so, a story about the horrific death of a lion in Zimbabwe has been making headlines globally. Lured from the safety of a national park, hunted, tracked and eventually slaughtered, the lion was skinned and beheaded and its carcass left to rot. The lion was named Cecil by the rangers in the park where it had lived since at least 1999, and it was part of a longitudinal study by Oxford University. It was a local ‘celebrity’, drawing tourists and those who wanted to marvel at its beauty and splendour. By all accounts, Cecil even enjoyed the company of people.  But it has emerged that an American man, known as a big-game hunter (and one who has had brushes with the law due to irregularities with his behaviour) had paid a hefty fee to hunt and kill ‘a lion’ – not necessarily Cecil, if the hunter’s account is to be believed – in the area, and had apparently believed his actions were entirely legal and above-board.

Except, when the animal was dead and it became clear that it was a collared lion, being monitored, the hunters made every effort to cover up their actions. They tried to destroy the collar., unsuccessfully They still skinned and beheaded Cecil, and left the remains behind. They made no effort or attempt to ‘fess up. The hunter returned home. The ‘guide’, who had been paid the hefty fee, pocketed it and turned away.

This situation is abhorrent. I, personally, condemn it in the strongest possible terms. I do not agree with the hunting of big game, whether one pays a ‘fee’ to do it or not, and whether or not this fee goes towards conservation. If one can afford thousands of dollars to destroy an animal in the name of ‘conservation’, why not simply go on safari to observe, take photographs, and pay your fee to preserve the animals? I do not agree that a lion which may have been more accustomed to humans than most deserved to be lured, tricked and tracked, shot with a bow and arrow and left to suffer for almost two days before finally being killed. I hate what this hunter has done with every fibre of my being, and he should be punished. He should never be allowed to take part in another hunt. The entire sport, when done in this way, should be abolished. (I’m not including hunting in indigenous communities, which is done to provide food, shelter and other necessities to maintain life, here; I’m talking about hunting as ‘sport’, whether paid for or not, simply for the ‘thrill’ of the kill).

But I do not stand over online harassment of this man’s family, staff and clients at his place of work, nor of the man himself. I don’t agree with vitriol being left on his website, or threats being made to his safety and wellbeing. If we condemn the abuse meted out to the Australian woman who dared to make a stand against misogyny, we can’t then turn around and shriek blue murder at a hunter whose actions happen to make us sick. Online abuse is online abuse; just because it’s being aimed at a ‘deserving’ victim doesn’t make it right. I hope that the family and friends of the hunter in question (and, grudgingly, he himself) are not feeling the same fear and stress that the Australian woman must have been feeling over the past few days – he deserves to be punished, certainly, and I hope he will be, to the fullest extent of the law. But his family and associates are innocent. They are as innocent as the solitary woman who said ‘no’ in the face of misogyny. I am not defending the hunter or his actions, which I believe to be abhorrent. I’m simply saying that in the clamour for ‘free speech’, we forget so easily the huge responsibility which comes with that privilege. We should use our freedom of speech to enact real change, and make meaningful commentary, and engage in true debate. If we sink to the level of online trolls, we have already lost.

The type of online abuse being suffered by the American hunter and the Australian woman is vastly different. She has been threatened with horrific physical abuse and threats of rape; he has received a few death threats among hundreds of largely clearly-phrased, well-written letters of condemnation. This, in itself, is a lesson. Women and men do not fare the same online. There are lessons we can learn, and things we can take from this situation – it’s an opportunity to begin a sea-change in how we conduct ourselves on the internet.

It won’t be taken, of course. I know that. Trolling will continue, and online hate will continue. But not, if I can help it, in my name.

Rules are Made to be Gently Bent

Recently, a very good friend of mine started up a brand-new blog called Home Grown Heaven. Before we go any further, I’d strongly recommend you follow the link and have a snoop about; there’s not a lot there to see yet, but it’s definitely worth the trip. Make sure to bookmark and follow along, if you have any sense. Trust me: it’ll do you good. My friend’s blog is not about writing, or books, or words, or the existential angst that seems to hang around this blog like a miasma, but is instead about the challenges and joys of living ‘off the land’ and following your dream of being sustainable, affordable and ethical in your everyday existence. In short, all the things I love in life, besides the written word.

Also, it’s very pretty and full of lovely photographs of flowers and ducks and home baking. Go on! What are you waiting for? I’ll be here when you get back, and I’ll probably have just finished boiling the kettle. Right?

Don't mind me. I'm fine here, just hanging out...  Photo Credit: Allison Richards (atrphoto) via Compfight cc

Don’t mind me. I’m fine here, just hanging out…
Photo Credit: Allison Richards (atrphoto) via Compfight cc

Okay. You see? I told you it’d be worth it.


Because I’ve been blogging for a while, with varying levels of success, my friend approached me when the idea for her blog began to form. She wanted to know what this blogging thing was all about, anyway, and how to begin to go about it. And because I love feeling like an expert, I (of course) was happy to share my hard-won knowledge. However, as I tried to help her, I began to realise exactly how many ‘rules’ of blogging I have recently begun to bend so far that, essentially, I’ve broken them.

Whoops. But do as I say, not do as I do. Right?

Firstly, I used to blog every day. For a long time, I enjoyed doing that. I had plenty to say; I burned with passion and fire. Of course there were days when I wondered if the inspiration fairy would pay me a visit, but I was very rarely left high and dry. I’m not saying it was easy (and after a couple of years it began to be a burden), but it was a challenge, and I do love those. Also, because I’d begun my blogging journey by writing a new post every day, I felt as though I couldn’t possibly stop posting every day.

Until I did.

As 2015 dawned, I began to see that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I stopped blogging every day. I tried to commit to a regular schedule, but that doesn’t always work either. Some weeks I blog on Mondays and Wednesdays; other weeks it’s Tuesdays and Thursdays. Some weeks I don’t blog at all. Such an idea would have been unthinkable two years ago. And one of the first rules of blogging is: Write posts on predictable days, so that your readers know when they can expect new content. This is a good rule. It’s one I passed on to my friend. But it’s not one I keep anymore, myself. However, I have learned something important, and it is this: the day your blog begins to feel like an unbearable weight, and the idea that you have to write a blog post is like a sharp pebble in your shoe, it’s time to take a step back. Blogging should be, by and large, a joy, something you do because you’re bubbling over with stuff you want to share, and because you want to help others. When it stops feeling like that, take a break.

Another rule of blogging is: Pick a topic about which you’re passionate, and which you can see a long-term future in. In other words, don’t jump on the nearest fad and start to build a blog around it. You’ve got to ask yourself: in a year, will anyone care? This is why I blog about writing, because it’s basically the one thing I do most often; it’s why my friend chose to blog about smallholding, because that’s her passion. They are also topics which have longevity. My writing will (hopefully) form the basis of my career, and my friend’s work on her land will be the means by which she sustains her family, long-term. That isn’t to say that a blog about (say) armadillos can’t occasionally discuss platypi (or, if you prefer, ‘platypuses’) or a blog about roof tiles can’t sometimes become sidetracked with mosaics, but it’s good to keep a focus on your topic.

Sometimes, I don’t do this either. Sometimes, there just isn’t anything to say about writing. Those days are hard and scary, and they make me wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Some days, I don’t blog about writing for the simple reason that I just don’t have any news: the road to being published is long and sometimes boring (and I’m in a long, boring patch right now), and I really don’t feel as though I have anything useful to share. So my blog ends up being about feminism, or crime, or social commentary, or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with this, as such, but it’s not always recommended.

There is one rule, however, which I have religiously kept since the day I first decided to begin this blogging journey, and that is: Always write with honesty. This rule is definitely one I passed on to my friend, because it’s something I really do believe in. There’s no point in blogging if you’re going to assume a ‘personality’; you’ve got to be you, behind the words. I have always written from my heart, and because I know my friend well, I can tell you that her words on Home Grown Heaven are from the heart, too. Whatever other rules you bend or break when it comes to blogging, this is one you really should keep.

Because if you find yourself having to pretend, then maybe it’s time to stop blogging altogether.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

Life, my friends, is getting in the way again. I’m busy, distracted, not altogether in the peak of health, and struggling with tiredness like nothing I’ve ever struggled with before.

I’m fine, of course. All will be well. But my own work has ground to a crushing halt (which I deeply regret), and I don’t have any pithy advice to dispense, and I am all out of clever ways around writers’ block (unlike these guys), and I certainly don’t feel like much of an authority on anything these days, besides self-pity.


This is a post about some stuff I’ve read lately which I’ve found particularly inspirational, interesting and/or useful. Not all of it is about writing – some of it is just about life. But it’s all good. Put the kettle on, relax, and share a cuppa with me, won’t you? Good-oh.

Aaah. Lip-smacking good! Photo Credit: markhassize11feet via Compfight cc

Aaah. Lip-smacking good!
Photo Credit: markhassize11feet via Compfight cc

On Being a Fat Bride

Some of you who’ve been around these parts for a while may know about my struggles with body image, weight and self-esteem. It’s something I take a huge interest in, this cultural obsession with thinness, and particularly the ‘health trolling’ which can surround commentary about women (in particular) and their bodies in the media. People feel it’s their right to treat those with weight issues like they were less than human, sometimes, and worthy of nothing but disrespect and ridicule. I hate that more than I hate almost anything else in the world. I am a person who struggles. I am a person who has struggled all her life. Most importantly, I am a person, and I deserve to be treated as such – not simply as a person who is fat. Sadly, this is so often not the case.

Several years ago, I got married. I felt great on the day, but I had trouble finding a suitable dress in the weeks and months leading up to the event itself. I had to think about things like covering myself up, pulling myself in, camouflaging things I hated about my appearance, and making sure the gown I chose was ‘flattering’. So, when I read this article by journalist Lindy West, about her own wedding day and how she was a happy, joyous, celebratory – and unapologetically, unashamedly fat – bride, it made me well up. Like Lindy, I loved my wedding day. Unlike her, I didn’t have the same sense of freedom around my appearance. I regret that I didn’t allow myself the space to enjoy my body, and that this is something I generally have trouble with. The article inspired me. I loved it. Have a read. But if you come across any comments, either relating to this version of the article or any of the numerous versions of it which were reprinted in other media outlets, do yourself a favour and skip those. Trust me.

On the label ‘MG’ and what it signifies

I love Philip Reeve. He’s a creative powerhouse and a central figure in the world of children’s books, both as a writer and an illustrator. He wrote a blog post in recent days about the label ‘Middle Grade’, or ‘MG’, and why it gets attached with such alacrity to children’s books outside of the United States, where the term ‘middle grade’ is meaningless. This is something which has bothered me, too, for a long time, but I could never articulate it quite the way Reeve has done. Perhaps his take on the issue is rather contentious, and somewhat divisive, but I largely agree with him. And, for once, the comments are ace and well worth reading (probably because most of them are written by children’s book professionals!)

On Illustrating, Illustrators, and the Hard Work of Being Creative

Sarah McIntyre (who has, incidentally, regularly worked with Philip Reeve) is another children’s book professional whom I admire hugely. She is an illustrator and a creator of picture books, and for a long time now she has been building a campaign online under the tagline #PicturesMeanBusiness, which aims to ensure illustrators start to get the recognition they deserve. I will hold my hands up and say that before I came across this campaign, I was a typical ‘text-fixated’ type; illustrations (whether they were on the cover or dotted inside the book) were, for me, an added bonus, but not something I thought about too deeply. That has all changed now. Before, I used to make sport of finding the illustrator’s name (usually in tiny type somewhere on the back of the book, or in the copyright/publication metadata at the front, and sometimes not included at all); now, I’m not happy unless illustrators get full credit, whether it’s online or in clear font, somewhere visible on the book jacket. I hope more people will get on board with this, and that we’ll see a change beginning in the world of publishing. For more, see Sarah McIntyre’s recent blog post on the process of producing illustrations, and how it’s a lot harder than it looks.

On Being a Weirdo (and Why it Rocks)

I’ve never read Laura Dockrill’s books, despite the fact that she seems like a fascinating person with a unique voice. This article, which she wrote for the Guardian during the week, might make me take the plunge into her wacky imaginary world, for once and for all. In it, she talks about the importance of being yourself, no matter how weird you might be – in fact, the weirder the better, it seems. This is one of the reasons I love books for young readers; they have such power to shape thinking, to alter the course of a life for the better, to influence and affect and make a difference. Not only do children’s books possess some of the most imaginative world-building, language use and characterisation in literature, but they make the children who read them feel part of something bigger, comfort them in times of challenge, make them see they’re not alone, and (hopefully) help them to be happier in their own shoes. And what could be better than that?

Nothing. That’s what.

And finally there’s this great list of reads from some of the contributors to the site (gasp!) Middle Grade Strikes Back, which details what people are bringing off on holiday with them to keep them company by the pool. I’ve read several, but most are new to me. Maybe they’ll inspire you, too.

Au revoir for now, poupettes. Stay well. I hope I’ll be back soon – and that there’ll actually be some writing news to tell you!

Book Review Saturday – ‘Phoenix’

S. F. Said is quickly becoming one of my auto-buy authors. His previous works, Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw, are beautiful adventure stories about discovering one’s own inner strength and learning to rely on friends (themes I love in children’s books), and his newest book, Phoenix, takes a look at some of the same issues, but in a vastly different way. Instead of the back alleys of a frozen city, seen from a cat’s-eye view, we have the most massive canvas of all opening up before us – the galaxy itself.

Image: Artist: Dave McKean.

Image: Artist: Dave McKean.

This book tells the story of a boy named Lucky who lives with his mother on a planet named Phoenix. His father, a famed military captain, is far away beyond the Spacewall fighting against the terrifying Alien race known as the Axxa, but despite this he seems ‘present’ in so many ways, as he is rarely far from Lucky’s thoughts. As the story opens, Lucky is dreaming. He feels himself soaring into the immensity of space, surrounded by stars, and an unknowable power begins to stir inside him – but when he wakes, he finds his clothes and bedsheets turned to ash. His mother reacts with terror, and a strange sort of foreboding, as though this was something she knew was going to happen one day, but she won’t explain what’s going on to her terrified son.

They go on the run, but in their efforts to leave Phoenix they are stopped. In the ensuing struggle, Lucky realises his mother is not everything she appears to be, and he barely escapes with his life. His unlikely rescuers? A crew of Axxa civilians, who agree to take him with them, anywhere but Phoenix. And so begins Lucky’s quest, not just across the galaxy, but also into the secrets which have surrounded his entire life. Are the Axxa really as bad as he’s been led to believe? Who, exactly, is his mother, and where did she get her jaw-dropping military skills from? After all the waiting and wondering, is his father really somewhere behind the Spacewall? And why does he feel, in his dreams, as though his entire body is filling up with the power of the cosmos – and what does it mean?

This book is immense. It’s a work of art. Stuffed full of the most beautiful drawings by acclaimed artist Dave McKean, who also brought Varjak Paw to life, it’s a memorable and moving intergalactic journey, the epic scale of which is mirrored in microcosm by Lucky’s internal voyage. He goes from being a lost and scared little boy to a person of such strength and self-belief by the story’s end, and the final few pages of this beautifully realised book are just perfectly imagined and written. As he travels across the universe in the company of his newfound friends, meeting Startalkers (people with the ability to ‘hear’ and communicate with particular stars, feeling what they feel) and prophets, Aliens and Humans, fantastic creatures and terrifying enemies, Lucky learns how much he has been kept from all his life, and how hard his parents tried to protect him. But, of course, as with all stories like this, he has to shuck off the mantle of protection and begin to take responsibility for himself, making his own decisions and coming to his own conclusions – and he does all this in style. He learns the secrets of his father’s astrolabe (a feature I loved), which is a mysterious navigational tool with the power to show its user the best route through the immensity of space to any point they wish to reach (and we finally find out why, whenever Lucky asks it to show him how to get to his father, it takes him off the ‘edge’ of the map, something which nobody had believed possible), and he gradually comes to terms with the depth and significance of his cosmic power.

The book has a deep ecological resonance, too, reminding its readers that we cannot simply take and use the natural resources offered to us (even on a galactic scale) without responsibility, as no matter how seemingly endless it appears, eventually every natural resource will become tapped out, and the result will be death for everyone. We learn about the ‘Wolf’ which is eating the stars, and the terrible toll this takes on the Startalkers, who must fade and die as their stars do. The myth of the Astraeus, the twelve immense beings – older and greater than gods – who live among the stars threads its way through the narrative and the art, and the huge themes of rending and destruction are counterpointed by Lucky’s realisation that, underneath it all, every living thing is the same, and Axxa and Human alike are more similar than different. He finds and loses love; he finds answers he didn’t know he was looking for. And eventually, he becomes the sort of man he could never have imagined.

S. F. Said is a hugely vocal advocate for children’s books and their power and value. His own work, Phoenix foremost, is a perfect example of what he’s talking about. This book is beautiful, imagination-grabbing, filled with themes of such scope and immensity that it simply has to be written for children, because it would be wasted on adults. As an object, this book gave me so much pleasure; it’s not just the story, which is good enough by itself, but the illustrations, which added to its visual and sensory appeal. It’s immersive and captivating and memorable, and one of my books of the year – in fact, probably one of my favourite books of all time. I heartily recommend it, for every child in your life.

So – Are You Gonna?

With all the things going on in the world – in fact, make that the solar system – these days, perhaps it’s a little stupid to focus on one book release from one author. Is it really so important that Harper Lee has published her second novel? Is it really?



Well. I guess it is.

In conversation with a loved one the other day, it emerged that they were counting down the seconds until Watchman was released so they could read it. I was asked whether I was buying a copy and I surprised myself a bit by saying ‘you know, I don’t think I’ll bother.’

I don’t think I’ll bother? Only the biggest bookish event of the year, and I’m not bothered?

After I got over my shock (it’s strange when something that comes out of your own mouth causes you to be surprised!) I thought about it again. What could possibly be behind this? Firstly, of course, there’s the controversy over whether the book has been published with its author’s full and informed consent. For what it’s worth, I believe it has, and it irks me a little that people assume a woman of Harper Lee’s advanced age would automatically be considered ‘non compos mentis’; I’m sure she’s perfectly aware, and we have no right to speculate otherwise. Undeniably, though, it does throw a pall over proceedings. It’s distasteful, in many ways.

But the main problem is, of course – *spoiler alert, in case you’ve been living under a rock* – the novel’s portrayal of Atticus Finch.

Atticus has long been a hero of mine. Maybe it’s down to Gregory Peck’s masterful portrayal of the character in the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s ‘first’ novel (even though, as we now know, Watchman predates it), and maybe it’s simply down to the power of Lee’s writing. Whatever the reason, Atticus is a calm, reasoned, wise, sympathetic, unsentimental and stoic character who does his best to raise his children the best way he can, working hard to provide for them and to give them as good a life as possible in the absence of their mother. He is principled, fair-minded and utterly devoted to the law – perhaps not always the law of the land, but the natural law of the human heart, wherein all people are created equal. He’s not warm, or over-emotional, or even demonstrative, but despite this his children know they are cherished and loved. The people he meets are aware of the quality of Atticus’ character without him having to do much more than simply be himself.

Perhaps, as some people have lately commented, this makes him a ‘plaster saint’; a character who is idealised, but hollow inside. I’ve never thought so until now. Atticus has always seemed to me to be a rounded and well-realised character, but perhaps I’m guilty of over-idealising him. It’s hard not to.

So, like many people, I took it hard when I learned that Lee’s depiction of her iconic character in Watchman differed so much from his portrayal in Mockingbird. How can twenty years have turned Atticus into a segregationist? A member of the Ku Klux Klan? Is this realistic?

Perhaps it is. Perhaps twenty years of hard living in the southern states of the US at the height of the racial tensions which predated the Civil Rights movement would wear a person down and change their opinions. Perhaps Atticus has suffered something personal and private which has affected the way he thinks. Perhaps he has grown tired of fighting, and has simply given up.

Even if the depiction of Atticus is entirely in keeping with a logical character progression, and it fits seamlessly with his appearance in Mockingbird, adding layers of complexity to an already complex character, I still don’t think I’ll read Watchman. Not yet, at least. It’s not even about losing the ‘sheen’ from an idealised character – not totally, at least. It’s also about how sad it is to think that a person of Atticus’ integrity could be worn down so, turned into such a stub of himself, changed so fundamentally, by a toxic social system. Not only do I feel a little lost that a character I love and admire so much can have such a turnaround, I hate the reminder of the world which may have enabled it. There are enough of those already.

In case you missed it, this was a week in which a bright, intelligent and articulate young Black woman could make a comment about cultural appropriation and be silenced for it from all corners by voices not from her own community – and referred to in disgustingly sexual terms by a man who should, frankly, be ashamed of his terminology – and, in light of this, I don’t think I can take Atticus’ demotion to ‘just another racist’. No matter what week Watchman was published, though, chances are high that something dreadful would have been in the news, somewhere, about humanity’s idiotic need to segregate itself into colour-coded camps, flinging missiles over the barricades. It is what it is, and we are – sadly – what we are. Atticus was a clear path through a tangled forest, a way forward, an example – at least, until this week. Without him, I mourn.

So, I will wait for a while to read Watchman, if indeed I ever do. I hope that when I do get around to it, things aren’t as bad as I’m imagining. If you’re reading the book, or if you’ve read it, maybe you’ll leave some (spoiler-free!) thoughts below?

Branford Boase, and the Magic of Books for Young Readers

Today (Tube strikes and other Acts of God bedamned!) the results of the 2015 Branford Boase Award will be announced. The Branford Boase is an amazing thing: an award presented to the best debut novel written for children/YA published in a particular year, which also recognises the vital role the editor/s have in bringing stories to their fullest life, and which always attracts a stellar long- and shortlist.

This year – even though I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist! – I have no idea how the judges are going to choose. It’s a job I’d simultaneously love and loathe – love, because you’d get to read so many incredible books, but loathe because I’d love all of them equally and choosing would be impossible. (But I’d give it a shot, just in case anyone’s listening).



As this article (from which the image is drawn) makes clear, the shortlist this year is extremely strong indeed. Every single book on the list deserves, in one way or another, to be rewarded, and certainly they all deserve to be read. Lest anyone think for a minute that books aimed at readers who are teens, or younger, aren’t worth bothering with, shall we consider the sort of subject matter these books deal with?

Yes. Yes, I think we shall.

To kick off, we have a book (Bone Jack, written by Sara Crowe, edited by Charlie Sheppard and Eloise Wilson) which deals with PTSD and alienation, loneliness and confusion, ancient pagan ritual and blood-soaked legend, where forces older than humanity are seen to still have sway over modern life and the power of the land is still strong. So Alan Garner-esque. So spine-chillingly amazing.

We also have a book (Trouble, written by Non Pratt and edited by Annalie Granger and Denise Johnstone-Burt) which deals with teenage pregnancy, the bonds of friendship, and the difficulties of growing up a little bit more quickly than you’d intended, as well as family complication, bodily autonomy and the travails of having to go through the most challenging thing you’ve ever experienced while still having to deal with school, and all its stresses

Then there’s a book (Half Bad, written by Sally Green and edited by Ben Horslen) which is an excellent, pacy, gripping read about a boy who is half White Witch and half Black Witch, in a world like our own but in which magic is an accepted part of everyday life. Hated and mistrusted because of who his father was, can he overcome his genetics and magical inheritance – and does he want to?

As if that wasn’t enough, we have a book (Cowgirl, written by Giancarlo Gemin and edited by Kirsty Stansfield) which takes a look at life on an underprivileged housing estate in Wales, and one girl’s attempt to break free of the misery she sees all around her through connecting with an ‘ideal’. These attempts bring her into the sphere of the legendary Cowgirl, and embroils her in the fate of a doomed herd of cattle – if she can save them, can she save herself?

There’s also the deeply moving Year of the Rat, written by Claire Furniss and edited by Jane Griffiths, in which a young girl named Pearl must deal with feelings she can hardly process in the aftermath of her mother’s death in childbirth. Her baby sister (whom she refers to as the Rat) comes into the world as their mother leaves it, and Pearl lashes out, keeps secrets, has ‘visions’ of her deceased mother, and eventually breaks down. Here is a book about love and grief which doesn’t hide from the darkness.

I’m not so familiar with the final two shortlstees, but they sound incredible too:

Leopold Blue by Rosie Rowell, edited by Emily Thomas, is set in South Africa during apartheid, and tells the story of a friendship which crosses the divide. Taking in the social issues of the day, including the scourge of HIV/AIDS, this is a realistic and significant book dealing with turbulent recent history.

The Dark Inside by Rupert Wallis, edited again by Jane Griffiths, is a story about two wounded people finding their way forward together, both dealing with the after-effects of abuse and trauma, and of the dark ‘curse’ which haunts their steps. Sounding a lot like a work of magical realism, this is one I need to read at my first available opportunity – but then I say that to all the books.

If these sketchy synopses aren’t enough to demonstrate that the world of children’s and YA books is about so much more than angsty love triangles and sulky heroines with floppy hair, then I’ll eat my hat. The breadth of imagination here, the wealth of story, the accomplishment in this shortlist alone is enough to make me want to do a joyful jig (but don’t worry, I won’t) that the world of writing for young readers is so vibrant, diverse, imaginative and simply brilliant. It’s where it’s at, people. Get on board.

And stay tuned to the Branford Boase Twitter account later today to find out who wins…

Top Ten Tuesday – Books I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Read Yet

Even those of us who read a lot (cough, me) don’t always get enough time to read everything we want. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day, and so many other pesky things that need doing, like work and sleep and eating, occasionally, and sometimes – if we’re brave enough – venturing outside and dealing with people who aren’t, you know, written on a page, but actually literally made of flesh and blood and bones and stuff.

Life can be tough for the bookworms among us. Reality very rarely stacks up against the worlds of fiction, for one, and people – charming as they are – don’t speak in the gorgeous curlicued turns of phrase one finds in books, and when you look at a tree in the real world, there aren’t spools of rich descriptive language hanging off its branches like clothes-tags, making it real and believable. You’ve just got to use your eyes, instead, which is boring. But that’s why we always go back to books, I suppose; they continue to allure and beguile, and there are so many stories still to be told and experienced. It does scare me that there are so many stories in the world, and I only have one brain which is already overcrowded, and I’ll never read them all. But there are a few books which I simply can’t believe I haven’t made time for yet.

And it’s a Tuesday. This is a Top Ten Tuesday post – check out the Broke and the Bookish for more. And it’s time to come clean.

The Top Ten Most Talked-About Books Which I Have Not Yet Read (to my eternal shame)

Emma Carroll, The Girl Who Walked on Air

I have read (and loved, and reviewed) Emma Carroll‘s gorgeous debut novel Frost Hollow Hall, and I have been meaning to get around to her other books ever since. She’s now on her third, if not her fourth, published book (eek!) and so I’d better get my act together. If only she’d stop being so darned talented and prolific, that is.

Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season/The Mime Order

Anybody with half a brain, or any sort of eye on the bookish world, has heard of the phenomenon that is Samantha Shannon. Her six-book deal at the age of twenty made literary hearts flutter and created a huge buzz around her work (which must, on reflection, have been quite a weight of pressure), but I have yet to visit her alternate London, peopled with clairvoyants and magic. The first two books in the series have since been published to huge acclaim, and I really should catch up, shouldn’t I?

V.E. (Victoria) Schwab, Vicious

Victoria Schwab is great fun on Twitter, and one of the most hard-working authors out there today. She seems to have a new book out every other week, which is at once an inspiration and also rather scary. There are several of her works which appeal to me, but I think Vicious is the one I would enjoy the most, being as it is about a pair of college roommates who begin to do experiments on the idea of ‘extraordinary’ abilities – and who then end up turning into superheroes (or supervillains, perhaps). It sounds like a brilliant read. Also, it looks like this:



*incoherent squeaking*

Paula Hawkins,

The Girl on the Train I truly love it when debut novels take off into the stratosphere like this one has. It’s a multi-million copy bestseller all over the world, and it has been optioned for film (and I’m sure it will be excellent when it eventually finds its way to the screen). A thriller, about which I know very little – mainly because I do want to read it and I don’t want to spoil it for myself – I know it involves a girl, a train, and what she sees from her carriage window. But that’s all. Don’t none of y’all give away the ending on me.

Zoe Marriott, The rest of The Name of the Blade trilogy

I read and reviewed the first in this trilogy (The Night Itself), concluding my review with the prediction that I would hardly be able to wait for the second book to be published. Well, yes. I have certainly remembered this series, and it’s one I really want to finish, but I still haven’t managed it. I don’t have an excuse, besides time and money. I feel bad enough about it; you don’t have to add to my burden by looking at me like that, thank you very much.

Allan Boroughs, Ironheart (and sequel, Bloodstone)

Argh! And this one! When it was newly published, I thought ‘Oh, my goodness. A book about a young girl embarking on a dangerous quest to the very north of the world? *flail* This book has me written all over it!’ And, in truth, Ironheart is a book I know I would adore. But, for whatever reason, it’s sort of hard to find. I went looking for it, and/or its sequel Bloodstone, last week in a massive bookshop and even the bookseller – that same knowledgeable lady I’ve spoken of before on this here selfsame blog, she who knows all and sees all in children’s and YA publishing – hadn’t heard ot it. So, I gloated for a bit that I’d introduced her to a book she hadn’t come across already, and she promptly ordered in some stock. Next time I’m passing through I’ll pick it up. (And I can’t wait).

Philip Reeve, A Darkling Plain

I’ve just finished Infernal Devices, the third book in the Predator Cities series (jaw-droppingly awesome) and now I can’t wait for the final instalment. Mobile cities which move around on tracks eating one another, airships, reanimated zombie warriors, ruthless killers, pirates, brigands, battles, bravery, unscrupulousness in all corners… Wow. This series is a triumph.

Emer O’Toole, Girls Will be Girls

This is one I’ve picked up and put down a few times when I’ve seen it in bookshops, mainly because the price was a bit prohibitive when it was first published – but I really, really want to read it. A polemic, an academic study, a riveting look at gender roles and why (and how) we play them, this is a book I not only want to read, but one which I know I need to read. I feel everyone needs to read a book like this one. I’m saving my pennies.

Moira Fowley-Doyle, The Accident Season

Apologies to the author for being unable to add the trema to the ‘i’ in her first name (blame WordPress, or perhaps my own ineptitude!), as well as for not having read her book yet. In my defence, it’s only barely been published – if it were Bambi, it’d still be doing the whole ‘trying to walk on the frozen pond’ thing. But it sounds fab, and here’s why: it’s about a family which seems cursed to suffer accidents (some serious) every October, for no explicable reason, and their struggle to break free, I can’t wait to get my brain around it.

Tatum Flynn, The D’Evil Diaries

This is truly shocking. A book with a cover like this:



about a twelve-year-old useless younger son of Hell who gets mixed up with a girl who accidentally fed her nasty uncle to a lion before becoming embroiled in a mystery which could upend the reality of the underworld itself, and I haven’t read it? I have no excuse. I can but throw myself on the mercy of the reading gods and hope for forgiveness, in this life or the next.

And there you have it. Ten of the books I’m really looking forward to reading, but which I haven’t quite managed to get to yet. Of course, with every passing week this pile is added to, and I’ll never catch up. But it’ll be fun to try.

Happy Tuesday! What’s on your TBR pile these days?

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow’

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is the debut novel of Katherine Woodfine, whose award-winning blog (focusing largely on children’s books) and job (working with Booktrust, alongside the UK Children’s Laureate) show her to be amply qualified to write a book like this one. It is a gentle, old-fashioned romp (all things I love!) through Edwardian London, following the adventures of a young lady named Sophie Taylor, who has recently gained employment in the Millinery Department of the soon-to-be-opened Sinclair’s Department Store in Piccadiilly. Period detail drips from every page, helped marvellously by the fantastic illustrations by Julia Sarda. I particularly loved the ones at the beginning of each new section, showing a fashionable young lady of the age wearing the last word in fashionable hats – which, of course, fits right in with Sophie’s new job.

And then there’s this stunning cover.



Pretty…. Anyway.

We first meet Sophie, who is fourteen, as she makes her way to Sinclair’s for a day’s training in advance of the shop’s grand opening. Sinclair’s is a store in the vein of Selfridges; large and opulent, situated over several floors, selling only the best of everything, and offering its clients a bit of luxury. It is owned by an American millionaire (again, as Selfridge’s was, back in the day) and despite being entirely fictional, it is described and written so well that the shop itself becomes another character in the story. I felt like I knew its twists and turns, its landings and corridors and polished wooden banisters, as well as I knew any of the people in this tale. Sophie immediately runs up against Edith, another shopgirl, who takes against her because of Sophie’s posh background. Sophie’s father fought in the Boer War, and they once had a large and impressive home. But through misfortune, bad timing, bad luck and a lack of foresight (none of which is her own fault), Sophie has been left alone and adrift in the world, with nothing of her previous life but a framed photo of her dashing father and a jug from her old bedroom. She has no choice but to start working and to take a room in a boarding house, and – as is entirely appropriate, given the book’s historical setting – she dives into these huge challenges with a sense of doing her duty, keeping an admirable (if extremely poignant) focus on the future and on where her life is taking her, as opposed to what she has lost.

She makes friends with Billy, a young man who works in the stables, and she also meets the slightly older and very exotic Lil, one of Mr Sinclair’s ‘girls’, whose job it is to model the merchandise and generally hang around looking beautiful. Lil is described regularly as being traffic-stoppingly stunning, but she somehow manages to be an interesting character on top of that, with plenty of intelligence and gumption of her own, and that was fantastic. Initially I thought her story arc would develop entirely differently, and I’m glad things didn’t go the way I’d expected. There’s also Joe, a runaway rag-tag street urchin on the wrong side of a vicious gang, who gets roped up in the central mystery of the book.

For, indeed. A mystery is afoot.

Sinclair’s grand opening is mere hours away, and an exhibition is planned to mark it, full of wonders and marvels. Central to the display is the marvellous Clockwork Sparrow itself, which is made of gold and precious jewels, and which plays a different melody every time it is wound. Sophie catches sight of it one evening as she leaves work, and is spotted in its vicinity by one of the senior shop staff. When the Sparrow goes missing later that night, suspicion immediately falls upon her, and as the book continues the net tightens around her. This is despite the fact, of course, that she’s entirely innocent – but who did take the Sparrow, and why? And what possible reason could they have for wanting to deflect suspicion on to Sophie?

The police aren’t interested in Sophie’s explanations or in her attempts to prove her innocence, and so it’s up to her – along with Lil, Billy and the shadowy Joe – to prove that there’s an answer to the mystery, and one which goes much further than mere greed. For the secret of the Sparrow is something far more important than its monetary value, and the reasons for its disappearance are much more important and dangerous than they first appear.

This is a clever, complex and interesting book, which drew me in from the first page. It is atmospheric and evocative and real, and I enjoyed all the characters, particularly anxious Billy who just wants to be left alone to read his boys’ own magazines and pretend to be a hero, and the sparky Lil who uses her own particular set of skills to get herself out of any situation. I loved its use of historical detail, its awareness of its setting, and its pacing, which gets tauter and more tense as the mystery draws to its conclusion. It was a quick read, for me, but it made me smile as it carried me along, and that’s the best recommendation I can give. It’s a great story, masterfully told, smoothly written and perfectly plotted. I look forward to the next book from its talented author.

Sidling In

So. Um. *scuffs toe of shoe*

Yeah. It’s been a while since I blogged. A week, you say? A whole week? Couldn’t be.

(It is).

I wish I could say something like ‘well, I’m terribly sorry, but when Brad and Angie call you at the last minute and invite you to their chateau for a mini-break, what idiot would say no?’ or ‘apologies for my absence, but I was abseiling down the Burj Al-Arab’, but in reality – hard as it may be to believe – I was doing neither of these things.

Photo Credit: fizaco via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: fizaco via Compfight cc

Life got in the way, folks. Simple as. I had more medical tests. I had some tiredness. I had busy stuff going on, all of which is very boring for anyone who isn’t me. It did, however, mean that I was away from my desk a lot, and not exactly in the right mindspace for blogging. I do heartily apologise. My schedule is going to be out of whack for the next few weeks, but I will try to be better – though I do beg your forbearance.

I did some reading, though, while I was away, and I also did some writing. Not as much as I wanted, but some. I had a day during the week with a lot of down-time in the middle, so I sat with a notebook in a cafe and worked through a vague-ish plan for the rest of my current WiP, gathering ideas – and in at least one exciting moment, realising that a rootless, context-free idea I’d had several months ago would now fit quite nicely indeed into my current work, with a few tweaks. You’ve just got to love moments like those, and it proves once again that no idea should ever be wasted. Even if, like this one, it comes at you out of the blue with absolutely no explanation or lead-up, like a blob of gelatinous something-or-other that just splats into your brain from on high. Write it down. Keep it safe. Let it percolate. Eventually, you’ll see something or hear something that’ll spark off a thought, which will spark off another thought, which will lead to a fully-formed idea so awesome that your heart will start to pound, and which you’d never have had if you hadn’t kept hold of that original odd little spark of inspiration.

You know you’re onto a good thing when your heart starts to pound and you can’t write fast enough to keep up with your brain. Those are the moments we live for, right?

After all this feverish inspiration, I wrote a pitch for my current WiP (a useful thing to do, fellow writers, when you want to help an idea coalesce), and emailed it off to my agent without too much thought. ‘Here’s something I’ve been working on,’ I said. ‘It’s not finished, by a long shot, but I just wanted you to know what I’m up to.’ Immediately, I regretted it; she’ll be too busy, or she’ll have far too much else on her plate right now what with judging X competition and accepting submissions for Y event and attending at least three book fairs simultaneously with the aid of holographic technology, I told myself. Really, though, I was afraid she’d email back doing the equivalent of holding my pitch between finger and thumb, looking disgusted, and saying: ‘This? This, here, is what you’ve spent months working on?’ And then she’d wash her hands of me completely.

But she didn’t do that.

‘Sounds great,’ she said, by return of email. ‘I’m excited to read the draft, when it’s done. Here are my questions.’ And she proceeded to ask me probing, useful, interesting things about the outline I’d sent, making me at once understand that a pitch I’d thought was entirely clear had, in fact, skimmed over some things to an unacceptable level and that I had a lot more thinking to do about at least one major aspect of my plot and world-building. In the course of answering her questions, I also realised something else: simply thinking about these questions and formulating answers to them was really helping me get a handle on what I’m trying to write about. (See how good my agent is? She teaches me even without trying to).

I’m closing in on 30,000 words with this draft. The going is slow, but I’m enjoying it. I’m back in a pseudo-historical fantasy setting with characters who are brave and funny and up for adventure, and world-threatening technology which must be harnessed for good, and crafty baddies, and all manner of questing and travelling and discovery, and it’s truly where my heart belongs. It took me a long time to get here, but I think I’ve managed to fetch up in just the right place.

Happy fourth of July weekend to those who celebrate, and happy weekend to those who don’t. Whatever you’re doing, remember to be good, be happy and spread as much love as you possibly can. This poor, tired old world needs it more than ever.